The relationship between Google and higher education is not a simple one. University staff spend increasing amounts of time battling search-engine powered plagiarism, complaining despairingly that students see nothing wrong with it. Meanwhile, Google spends increasing amounts of time scouring universities for brains to feed the Googleplex, complaining despairingly that it can't find the right people with the right skills — with the implication that more could be done to produce them.
The idea of a university is more complex and subtle than is readily apparent in these days of degree mills and research rankings. A corporation of students and staff learning through teaching and research, the university has served state, church and industry at various times and in various ways during its long history — it's been a surprisingly flexible idea.
One of the most important transitions came in the 19th century, when the primary importance of tradition was usurped by a commitment to the primacy of truth as revealed by science. In other words, the university became an engine for finding, testing and passing on the most accurate information available, independent of outside influences. Sounds familiar?
Universities must once again beware of being stifled by tradition, especially in a world where the equations of knowledge, authority and access are changing faster than ever. For its part, Google — and others who seek to do the same job — must realise that there is no point in delivering information ever more efficiently if the consumers aren't equipped to make good use of it.
Google needs to learn from universities ways of presenting not just data but what it means, why it matters. Universities need to come to terms with cut and paste culture — not fighting it but using it in new ways to encourage critical thought and creativity. There is no reason whatsoever why the two should not work together on this, establishing new ways of teaching online that serves the needs of both — and of the rest of us. The ideals of life-long learning, of using knowledge to improve ourselves and society regardless of where we find ourselves, have never been more achievable.